Riding: The Southland

Four weeks. Four shows.

The competition is very keen, a mix of riders from the amateur and professional ranks. While many are from the West Coast, the shows have attracted others from the Intermountain West and the Midwest. A few have made the trek from traditional horse country in Kentucky and Virginia. The three week June Classic, followed by the Red, White and Blue Classic, brings over 1,100 horses and nearly 550 riders together. Riders and horses, of every skill level, make it a deep, talented gathering.

Riding the Southland has become an important piece of their schedule. In the beginning, it introduced them to a higher level of competition they had not yet experienced.

Their first appearance in 2014 proved to be humbling. Finishing in the bottom five of their events, in the first week, was not the debut they wanted. My daughters could not hide their bitter disappointment. They did not resemble the highly talented junior riders they were before. Between show weeks, a few whispers of “maybe they weren’t that good after all” could be heard whenever they walked through the stable area. While the churlish remarks hurt, they had to set aside their feelings. The second week was another week. They showed flashes of their potential. One was an unexpected win.

winning tears: Tara and Cameron, unexpected Grand Prix winner – June Classic III (Jun 2014)

Trish had no doubts about her charges. She asked if my daughters could ride the entirety of the June Classic and the Red, White and Blue Classic the following year, knowing they would benefit more from the extended stay. Four weeks away from home was a big ask with three weeks in Iowa already on the schedule. With eight shows on the road, two at home as optional, it was a major commitment in their development. “It’s about gaining experience and learning,” Trish said at the time. “You don’t become better staying on the sidelines, watching the better riders or watching tape. You have to ride.”

Opening the 2015 season in Texas, their riding was much more polished, much more consistent.  It showed in the results. When they arrived in San Juan Capistrano, the girls were riding quite sharply. They were fast, crisp, precise and disciplined. They were beginning to compete with the professionals on their level. The whispers changed, “they are better than good …”

Trish came for the final week of the June Classic (2015) to watch. She saw what she always knew. “They’re unafraid. They know when to take a risk, when to lay back.” In the best riders, it is second nature. They have plenty of it. Moreover, they showed they belonged.

on the sidelines: Elizabeth practicing with Vandal Warrior on an introductory ride – June Classic II (Jun 2019)

Coming into the Red, White and Blue Classic, this week, they have been riding very well. It’ll be more of what they know and do best.


Riding: Beginning 2019

The anticipation was high.

After five starts, she had earned four blue ribbons and one third place ribbon. Her performance was most impressive. She was ready for more.

Consisting of veteran and younger professionals, and several top amateurs, the field of riders was exceptional. Its international breadth was comparable with a World Cup event. The show’s FEI schedule was one of the last opportunities to earn ranking points before the end of the 2018-19 FEI season. The final standings at season’s end carries weight. It could determine whether a rider would be invited back for the following FEI season. Those riding with sponsor backing, gaining additional points could be the difference in earning a seasonal bonus. For others, the multi-week Spring Classic was the beginning of their 2019 campaign. Undoubtedly, a strong performance could lead to future considerations.

The Grand Prix course layout was a 13 obstacle/16 effort design by veteran FEI course designer Leopoldo Palacios (VEN). A lifelong horseman himself, Palacios’ courses are known to showcase the artistry of horsemanship while being technically challenging.

With the start order set, Deborah was riding fifth, Tara 16th, Elizabeth 26th. Starting first was Hannah Selleck (USA) from New Mexico. Seemingly on her way to a clear round, Hannah pulled two rails in the middle section of the course. The next three riders suffered the same fate – pulled rails in the middle section of the course. Times were averaging in the 74-78 second range.

Deborah and Captain Andrew on the tunnel walk

Riding next was Deborah. She patiently worked Captain Andrew through the course. The middle section, which was proving to be most troublesome in the early going, she handled it with ease. Her bright smile at the end said it all. She and Captain Andrew had the first clear round of the evening at 73.42 sec. The next three riders to follow, Nicole Shahinian-Simpson (USA), Uma O’Neill (NZ) and Shawn Casady (USA), also advanced to the jump off by riding clear.

Though much of the field had yet to ride, four riders advancing to the jump-off out of the first eight underscored the depth of the field. When it seemed more riders may advance, the next six riders began to pull rails. No particular section was more difficult than another with rails down across the course. Rich Fellers (USA) broke the streak, becoming the fifth rider to advance into the jump-off.

Tara, with Cameron, was next. It was a steady, focused ride. Tara’s approach advanced her into the jump-off with a clear round, and with the second fastest time of the evening at 73.44 sec.

After Tara, half of the field was remaining to ride. Considering it included some very good riders, easily two or three, maybe four could advance to the jump-off. Again, rails began to be pulled. Like before, no particular section had become more difficult. The four, five, six or more, who could advance, did not. It is part of the unpredictability found in the sport.

The moment she worked hard to achieve had arrived. Riding under the lights, the evening start, made it extra special. A quick tap on the side of her helmet, she was set. It was time to ride.

A hushed quiet fell as they quietly cantered the course, lining up the start. Crossing the start timers, they began. It was smooth. It was fast. It was precise. It was effortless. When they completed the course, the crowd erupted with applause and a few cheers. It was a clear round, finished in 69.83 sec.

Her fast time in the Grand Prix round undoubtedly placed pressure on her fellow jump-off riders. They would have to take some chances with tighter turns and sliced jumps. Yet, she would have to take a few chances of her own. Positions on the leaderboard afforded no special advantage. Any one of them could win.

First to ride, in the jump-off, Deborah. She kept her turns tight, sliced three jumps to reduce her time over the seven obstacle course. Though the top rail bounced on her last jump, it stayed in place. Deborah finished clear with a time of 36.52 sec. She became the rider to catch. Knowing she needed to ride aggressively, Nicole was next. She, too, kept her turns tight. There were moments in which it seemed she didn’t have enough speed to clear a jump, but clear she did. Nicole finished with a clear round at 38.12 sec.

Both of their times had placed pressure on the remaining jump-off field, particularly Deborah’s. Next was Uma. She was going well, until she brushed the fourth fence. Rail down, her finish time at 38.89 sec. Shawn brushed the same rail, same fence during his run. He finished at 39.04 sec. Rich, he was on-track to ride clear also until he pulled a rail on the final jump. He finished at 38.77 sec.

Tara and Elizabeth remained. How they would finish would determine the outcome of the event. Tara cantered Cameron through the course before circling back to start. It was decidedly a fast pace. Cameron rubbed the top rails of the combination fence at #5 rather heavily, but they stayed in place. The slice on the final jump carried Tara tight against the post. She finished clear at 36.49 sec.

Tara and Cameron cantering the jump-off course

She flashed a smile when her time was displayed on the scoreboard. In first place, Tara waited on the remaining rider.

They slowly cantered the course in silence. She kept Lilith on a tight rein as they weaved their way. Crossing the start timers, they were very sharp. Suddenly, an uncharacteristic, out-of-the-blue moment occurred. A wrong footed landing after clearing #3. Her strategy for the jump-off was out the window. She had to adjust. With little forward momentum, they cleared #4. She tightened the turn heading into the combination at #5, which they cleared. A pair of slices on successive jumps, deliberately placed against the post. Every bit of the horsewoman she is was on display, and every bit of a thoroughbred Lilith is was on display too. Finishing clear, she knew she might not make the winner’s podium. Her time flashed on the scoreboard after a short wait. Elizabeth finished with a time of 36.27 sec, clinching her first 3* level major win.

The moment was made sweeter with Tara and Deborah joining Elizabeth on the winner’s podium and their 1-2-3 finish. Deborah and Tara also rode extremely well. Deborah won 1 blue, 2 reds (2nd place), 2 yellows (3rd place) and one fourth place while Tara won 3 reds, 2 yellows, and one fifth place.

After savoring this moment, it was studying the ride, then plan for the next show.


Riding: Closing 2018

It came full circle. The season beginning and ending on the world stage.

Making a fifth consecutive appearance at the Nationals, in Las Vegas, was a fitting reward for an outstanding riding season. Their excellence was quite evident. In their first appearance, in 2014, “we were quite green then,” Deborah recalled. “It showed in our riding. We were rather inconsistent. Ride well here, kind of middling there. The poor moments, a few. Most fortunately, we improved along the way.” 

Each season has its own expectations. “They can become greater, or fewer,” Elizabeth remarked. “Success, much or little, has a way of doing that. A rider needs to keep their own expectations in check, making them non-factors.” Tara added, “The pressure, to achieve this or that, can be overwhelming. Trust yourself, trust your horse. The rest will follow in due course.” Fluorishing under the instruction of Mark and Trish, they’ve earned their equestrian spurs many times over.

“Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara, their intangibles are insane,” Trish has raved of her charges. She had no doubt they’d be riding at this level. “You will not find another rider, at any level, who will outwork or outstudy them. Their attention to detail is second to none. It shows in their riding. A new wrinkle here. A refinement there. An adjustment on the fly.” The professionals, they have taken notice too.

*     *     *     *

The best competing with the best. Strong riding at its best. Fast. Crisp. Precise. Disciplined. Strong fundamentals. The fastest horse, or an aggressive riding line, does not necessarily ensure a place high on the leader board. Or, a place on the winner’s podium. Opening night could not come soon enough.

A field consisting mostly of professionals and a few top amateurs were invited to ride the FEI events. The 45 riders included defending 2017 World Cup Las Vegas winner Richard Spooner (USA), East Coast sub-league contender Molly Ashe Cawley (USA), Georgina Bloomberg (USA) and Nayel Nassar (EGY). Among the amateurs, my daughters were fortunate to be invited once again. They were coming off strong performances in a highly competitive season.

The excitement. The anticipation. The sights, the sounds. The pageantry. They permeated every corner of the equestrian center. The riders were eager to compete on the FEI courses laid out by Anthony D’Ambrosio (USA). His courses, noted for their technical features, include tight turns, bending lines and smooth transitions while showcasing the power and agility of the horse.

The first event was the $35,000 FEI 1.45m Blenheim Jumper Classic. Using a power and speed format, the short jumper course had bending lines, two combinations and technical inside turns. The fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins. Richard Spooner, riding 13th in the start order, smoked the course with a blistering 23.18 sec on board Arthos R. Known for his “Master of Faster” pace, Richard made it look easy – Arthos jumped easy, smooth turns, smooth transitions. Molly Ashe Cawley finished second at 24.26 sec and Nayel Nassar finished third at 24.74 sec. If this first event was an indicator, this meet was going to require every rider give their very best effort. Finishing lower on the leader board, my daughters swept the 11th (Elizabeth), 12th (Tara) and 13th (Deborah) places with good times but with one rail down (4 penalty points).

*     *     *     *

Attention soon focused on the $40,000 FEI 1.50m Las Vegas National Welcome Jumper Speed Classic. It would qualify the 30 rider field for the World Cup event. In previous years, the FEI occasionally granted wild card entries into World Cup events. This season, they dropped the practice entirely. A rider had to make the elimination cut to make the field. Where the cut line is set, a variety of factors, from course design to competitiveness to the number of qualifiers, determine its placement.

Nicole Shahinian-Simpson (USA), riding third in the start order, took the early lead at 63.54 sec. While riding early has some disadvantages, she established a strong time on the speed course. Nicole’s lead was holding firm. While other riders chipped away at her time, they were taking penalty points for pulled rails in the process. Georgina Bloomberg turned in a very solid ride, finishing second at 64.07 sec. Elizabeth rode next. She was quietly putting together the best ride of the evening. Very precise, very patient. A slight brush with a top rail on a double combination fence dropped one end. Though her ride seemed to have a very deliberate pace, Elizabeth had a blazing fast time of 60.08 sec. Deborah and Tara rode back to back three spots later. They were riding the course much like Elizabeth, precise and patiently. Both had brushes with a top rail also, but at different points in the course. Deborah finished at 62.84 sec, Tara at 63.67 sec. What mattered was that all three would advance into the World Cup event on Saturday night.

*     *     *     *

World Cup Day had arrived. The first order of business was the FEI riders’ meeting. The day’s schedule was reviewed, times noted. Practice times were slotted according to bib number; the walkthrough of the course build would begin at 4:00 pm. The last piece of business was the blind draw for start positions. It’s the one part of a riders’ meeting that becomes semi-raucous. The FEI officials tried to keep the decorum serious. The banter among the riders was less serious, from “What start position did you draw?” to “They’re using the bingo drum from the casino.” It was a matter of staying loose, staying relaxed. After all, a whole day had to unwind first.

assembling the course for the World Cup – Las Vegas qualifier

Shortly after 4:00 pm, the course build was open for the rider walkthrough. The track was fast, the turns were tight, the transitions challenging. The footing and lighting perfect. While my girls evaluated the course together, they found their quiet spaces to set their riding lines. Since D’Ambrosio was using power and speed designs, it was determining which options would best fit the course layout. Riding from middle start positions, my girls would have time to watch the course develop. Deborah would ride just before intermission, Elizabeth and Tara after.

The riders and their horses were warmly greeted during the opening ceremonies. The excitement level was very electric, very Las Vegas in every sense. The course, a highly technical 13 fence, 16 effort design. The field, a mix of veteran professionals and young, fast-rising talent. For the winner, a qualifying entry into the World Cup Finals in Gothenberg, Sweden. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

The world stage was ready. Jennifer Gates (USA) had the unenviable task of riding first. She kept Monaco on a rhythmic pace throughout the course. Finishing with a clear round, Jen was the rider to catch. The next four riders to follow also used a rhythmic pace, but were pulling rails. They wouldn’t be joining Jen in the jump-off round. Harley Brown (AUS), riding sixth with Mylord Cornet, finished with a clear round. Though nearly two seconds off Jen’s time, his clear round assured there would be a jump-off.

With Deborah riding from the 14th start position, the seven riders before her rode the course with a rhythmic pace also. They finished with times in the 73-76 second range, along with penalty points for downed rails. They filled places lower on the leader board. It was time for Deborah and Comet to ride the course. Starting their turn in a rhythmic pace, they stepped up the tempo. Coming out of fence 6, a pulled rail and a stumbled landing, they managed to recover. Once in the exit area, Comet was limping noticeably. Dismounted, Deborah walked him into the holding area. An exam by one of the FEI veterinarians said Comet likely had a sprain in his left front leg. An ultrasound confirmed the sprain injury. They finished at 74.23/4 penalty points.

Though concerned for Comet, Elizabeth and Tara continued with their warm-ups during intermission. Among the first three riders coming out of intermission, they had to focus on their own rides.

practice time: Elizabeth with Lilith waiting for their turn

The first rider after intermission, Elizabeth began in a precise, patient manner but with a stepped-up tempo. To make the jump-off, Elizabeth decided the best approach was to be fractionally ahead of the fastest time at each split. Her approach was paying dividends; with Elizabeth ahead at the splits, she was on track to have the fastest time over the course. On 9A, it was a slight brush of the top rail that brought down one end. The fault was like her qualifying ride in the Speed Classic, an end of a top rail down. When she finished the course, Elizabeth owned the fastest time on the course. Though, she didn’t make it into the jump-off with the four penalty points, her 69.57 sec time had turned heads. She was cheered for a beautiful ride.

Laura Tidball (CAN) was the next rider. A former Olympian (1988), Laura was having an evening not to remember. Three rails down, a slower time. She gave a nice pat to Concetto Son for a good effort. It was now Tara’s turn. Joining the jump-off was her aim. Like Elizabeth and Deborah, Tara was having a good meet too. Staying precise, staying patient. Having the fastest time wasn’t important, it was knowing when to be fast. Over the first third of the course, Tara established a half-second lead over Elizabeth’s time. Somewhere over the second third, her time lead evaporated, falling a full three seconds behind Elizabeth’s over this section of the course. While it seemed Tara had Cameron clearing the second top rail over fence 11, he gave it a slight rub. Rail down. It was so close. They finished at 74.84/4 penalty points.

Kristen Vanderveen (USA), who followed Tara, rode clear. Then, Wilhelm Genn (GER), Richard Spooner and Nayel Nassar each rode clear, setting the field for the jump-off. Riding the jump-off is a mix of strategy and risk taking, but most of all, trusting your horse. Over a shortened section of the course, the fastest time with the fewest rails down (preferably none) wins the jump-off and the event.

If there were favorites going into the jump-off, it had to be Nayel Nassar and Richard Spooner. Riding a short jumper course, there is no one better than Richard. Also, as the defending champion in the jump-off, winning back-to-back carries plenty of motivation and incentive. Nayel, simply, he was riding hot, having won the three World Cup qualifiers coming into Las Vegas (Sacramento, Del Mar, and Thermal). He was riding well here too. Richard dropped a top rail trying a slice on fence 3, the next to last fence on the jump-off course. Nayel, riding last, was riding behind Richard’s time. Crossing fence 3, Nayel slightly rubbed the top rail. Rather than falling, the top rail bounced in place. Another win for Nayel, and second for the day.

Elizabeth finished 7th, Deborah 10th and Tara 11th.

A respectable finish by any measure.

*     *     *     *

Side Notes

Deborah spent the night with Comet after his injury, fearing the worst as he slept. A few of the other riders dropped by to check on the both of them, which was very kind of them. Having the hardest moment, though, were Francie and Ali Nilforshun. Francie, on board Clarinius, the 12 year old gelding collapsed and passed away in the exit area shortly after completing the course. They were having a very good meet. Tara knows this feeling all too well herself about losing a horse in competition. It is believed Clarinius died from a heart seizure.

In the morning, Comet was airlifted by FedEx to Colorado, accompanied by Deborah. Met at the FedEx terminal, at Denver International Airport, by Mark and Trish, and Andrea, Comet was transported to the veterinary hospital at Colorado State University in Fort Collins for further evaluation. Dr. Kennerly, our horse veterinarian, met them to perform the more extensive orthopedic evaluation. The ligament in his front left leg, near the knee, was sprained. If not for his physical strength, Comet likely would have broken down. And, the outcome could have been very different.

Since then, Comet has recovered nicely. His extended rehabilitation and training program is nearly complete. Comet is scheduled to return to competition in June. Until Comet’s return, Captain Andrew Evan Stedman is Deborah’s #1 while five year old Odyssey continues with his qualification program.


Colorado In Fall: Coming Home

A warm hearth awaits, along with stories and tales to be told.

Dino and Pebbles were first, when they were baby kittens in 1989. Then, it was Egypt in 2005. On the equine front, Cara and Magician came in 2003. There’s something about October, something about the fall season, when it is time to come home.

Soon, another October addition will come.

Tara riding then two-year old Shelby (Double N Ranch, TX – May 2016)

Shelby is destined be Tara’s future show jumping horse. In the two years since Tara’s first ride with Shelby, the paint has undergone a growth spurt and now stands at 17.3 hands tall. At four years old, Nicole says he’s going to be a talented one. Shelby is jumping at the one meter level. Nicole believes his time has arrived to learn and develop with a talented rider. For Tara, Shelby reminds her so much of Jasper.

With Shelby, Tara notes, “Second chances rarely come. We’re going to make a good run at being the best.”

Riding: New Directions

“It’s important to build off on what you accomplished.”

The experience in Guadalajara was an excellent one. “There are so few riders,” Trish noted, “who are able to do what you did.” They smiled in reply. “The riding was exceptional. Everyone knows it. Simply, it was strong riding.” The extra confidence from Trish was much appreciated.

practice course: Elizabeth setting part of the practice course (RRC, Mar 25 2018)

One final instruction from Trish before beginning the practice course. Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara listened intently. It wasn’t much different from their earlier days of listening to her every word, and watching her every motion.

With everyone in place, Trish signaled Deborah to begin her ride of the practice course. Quickly approaching the difficult weave section of the course (left-left-right-sweeping right), Trish shouted at Deborah to attack the course harder. Sitting back down, “The weave is a series of blind turns. It is pure instinct,” she explained. “It is total trust between horse and rider.” Deborah completed the course cleanly, saying the weave was a rush. Tara, then Elizabeth, followed, riding the course cleanly too. Their riding – fast, crisp, precise.

A quiet conversation among the four followed.

Candace (Happy Girl): ready to win in her West Coast debut (SJC, Apr 03 2018)

Today, my daughters will open their 2018 season in SoCal. They, and their horses, are ready.

Riding: 2018 Opener

The field of thirty riders was set. From the La Familia Cup (1.50m), 24 riders qualified. The remaining slots were filled by wild card entrants. Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara qualified with top ten finishes, 6th, 9th and 10th respectively. Both the team trainer and a team sponsor were very pleased. They called their riding “masterful”. Considering the girls had met their horses two days earlier, they described their riding as adequate.

The opportunity of riding in Guadalajara had presented itself weeks earlier as the Nationals in Las Vegas were drawing to a close. An equestrian group from Mexico had brought a pair of horses and one of their best riders. They were using their appearance as a dress rehearsal ahead of the World Cup show in Guadalajara. A pair of team officials had watched from the sidelines. Disappointed, they had hoped for a better outcome.

After a few inquiries, word began to spread of a late rider switch for their team. Soon, they found themselves speaking with my daughters. Acknowledging the possibility of a rider switch, they asked the girls of their thoughts regarding a switch. They suggested staying with their original plan. A switch does not guarantee a better result. Plus, finding and contracting riders at such a late stage could be difficult, and may come at a premium price. Besides, their young riders would gain more experience from riding than from watching. If they qualified, a World Cup start would be something to build on.

With a day and a half to prepare, plenty of riding remained. The entire field had events remaining on their individual schedules. My daughters had two events and a practice session on the board for the next day. On World Cup day, only a light morning workout was planned. The only amateurs in a diverse professional field, my girls knew they needed quality rides to be competitive. The masterful rides, for the moment, were a series of photos on display in the Guadalajara Country Club from past shows.

jump: Kent Farrington (USA) with Uceko at the Pan Am Games XVI (2011)
original photo: Al Bello/Getty Images*

A misty morning greeted all on World Cup day. The girls followed their usual routine, checking on the horses in the early morning. Their team of four grooms reported the horses had a good night despite the damp, chilly conditions. They added once the fog and mist lifts later in the morning, it would be a very good day for riding. Deep blue skies and a few, feathery clouds were revealed when the mist and fog burned off. It was indeed a perfect day for riding.

First, it was the morning riders’ meeting and the all-important, blind draw for starting positions. The girls had hoped to draw start positions in the middle of the field. They were very pleased with the positions they drew – Deborah 12th, Tara 15th, Elizabeth 16th – it had to be a good sign. Much of the day, though, would be a matter of staying loose, and managing the expectations like any other grand prix day. Wait for, then ride, their practice times, keeping it all very easy.

Tara: from cross trainers to English tall boots

The course build was going to be challenging for my daughters. They hadn’t jumped a full course at 1.60 m before. The Guilherme Jorge designed course featured a 13 fence/16 effort layout. Also designing courses for the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2016 Las Vegas Nationals, this course design had his trademark technical challenges while showcasing the athleticism and grace of the horse.

During the walkthrough, my daughters’ focus was on the coming ride. To ride the course cleanly, a good rhythm was needed: clear one fence, gather position and speed quickly for the next, stick the take-offs and landings. Turns needed to be precise and smooth. Technical demands aside, the difficulty of the course was its fence heights.

Coming into the event, most of the riders had fewer than five World Cup starts. The more experienced professionals were few in number. The most experienced professionals were the three other riders from the USA. While two entrants (Brazil and Sweden) withdrew due to injury, the tightening of the field to 28 didn’t alter the overall competitiveness. In another wrinkle, the FEI suspended the rule requiring amateur riders to have a top ten finish to appear in the official results. Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara would be eligible for ranking points.

With the first group of riders warming up, a sense of anticipation and excitement was beginning to build in the grandstand. A qualifier for both the World Cup Finals in Paris and the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, much seemed to be at stake. Many were hoping to see the road to both championships begin here. The girls checked their riggings one final time. Deborah and Tara were in the second warm-up group, Elizabeth in the third. Each with a few butterflies, it was fairly routine. My girls were ready.

Among the early starters, the riding was very rough. Pulled rails, time faults, tentative riding. Though one clear round was produced, the audience had grown quiet. Their optimism and excitement had faded. More rails were pulled, but times improved slightly into the low 80s. A pair of clear rounds followed. With pulled rails all over the course, no particular section was proving to be more difficult than another.

Her riding was smooth, her turns were precise. The jumps were clean. Deborah was putting on a clinic. Fate intervened on fence 9C of the Longines Jump, a triple fence combination. Her Dutch warmblood barely tapped the top rail, but was enough to pull it. An audible “ohhh” could be heard throughout the grandstand. Deborah finished at 80.48 seconds/4 penalty points. She was warmly applauded for her effort. Following Deborah was last year’s champion, Francisco Pasquel. His ride was crisp, clean and precise. Posting the fastest time of 76.79 seconds, he was laying down a challenge for the remaining riders in this round and the jump-off – your best ride will be needed. After his ride into the lead, it was another rider unexpectedly pulling off rails on back-to-back fences. He shook his head in bitter disappointment coming off the course.

At the halfway point of the event, Tara was next. She rode a quickening lap around the ring before crossing the start timers to begin her run. With good speed and rhythm over the first third of the course, Tara’s time split was a half second ahead of Pasquel. She then heard a rail being struck while clearing fence 6. Tara kept her eyes focused heading into fences 7 and 8, before lining herself up for the Longines Jump at 9. Though Tara had good speed, she finished at 82.54 seconds/4 penalty points.

Immediately following Tara was Elizabeth. With four riders already claiming places in the jump-off, she wanted to be the fifth. Elizabeth cantered her Hanoverian at a deliberate pace, slowly stepping it up. Crossing the start timers, Elizabeth began her run. She was crisp, clean and precise. At the first time split, she was fractionally ahead of Tara, 0.60 seconds ahead of Pasquel. With Elizabeth riding extremely well, the audience had taken notice of her time and the remaining number of fences. It was going to be close. Slightly brushing the last fence, it was enough to pull down a rail. A nice pat for CM, Elizabeth gave herself a tap on the helmet. Elizabeth finished at 77.91 seconds/4 penalty points. Her time was the second fastest over the course.

curtain call: extra applause for Elizabeth and CM

The remaining portion of the field produced three more clear rides to advance them into a seven-horse jump-off. It ended with a 1-2-3 sweep for the host nation, Mexico. For Luis Alejandro Plascencia O, it was a qualifying win in his first World Cup start. Taking second was Gustavo Ramos with his longtime partner Izzy Miaki, with last year’s winner, Francisco Pasquel, finishing third. The highest USA finish was fifth place by Sarah Scheiring. Riding last in the jump-off, Sarah pulled a rail on the last fence. Her finish moved her higher in the east coast sub-league standings for the World Cup – North America branch. In the final standings, Elizabeth finished 8th, Deborah 11th and Tara 12th.

Their first international show, and riding well, my girls are not ready to concede they achieved. Quite to the contrary. They have learned how to be better riders from the experience, and had fun in the learning.


* Photo of a gallery print. The Getty Image of Kent Farrington and Uceko at the Pan Am Games can be found here.

Riding: Season Finale

“It is no longer about potential. It is about being kinetic.”

A national horse show has a way of drawing the best out of a rider. The stakes are well understood. A win can catapult a rider to greater heights. An unexpected finish can lead to new opportunities. Or, it can quash the loftiest of dreams.

Riding in their fourth, consecutive appearance at the Las Vegas Nationals, my daughters have caught the eye of a few professional riders along the way. They’ve watched them at work, and have come away impressed. Their horsemanship, work ethic, attention to detail, their intangibles. Most have been impressed with their ability to manage the anticipation and expectations of a national show, and the bright lights of an FEI World Cup tour event.

Compliments aside, it is about riding the ride. “It is giving their absolute best in the show ring,” says Trish. “They trust themselves. They trust their horses. They have a maturity that you rarely, if ever, find in a rider of their age. That is why they’re very, very good.”

With fewer wild card slots available, the World Cup Grand Prix field was expected to be smaller in size from the year before. A rider’s best chance to assure themselves a slot was a clean ride in the qualifier, the Welcome Speed Classic, held two nights earlier. No rails down, no time faults. Once the qualifier and wild card slots were filled, a field of 29 riders was set. Only Elizabeth qualified for the event; Deborah and Tara both failed to qualify with one rail down in their runs. Yet, these are the moments they have often practiced. Only one moving ahead to ride the headline event, the other two supporting in a second’s role.

Deborah and Tara walked the course build with Elizabeth, offering their insights on the Oscar Soberón designed course. Like his other courses – fair, challenging, exciting. After the walkthrough, Elizabeth worked through her notes and choosing her sightlines and riding line.

An hour before the event, it’s the quiet time for Elizabeth and Lilith. The routine is deliberate and methodical. When the first group of riders are called, Elizabeth and Lilith are ready. A final check of the rigging, they begin the walk from the stables to Priefert Arena, next door to the main arena, for warm-ups.

The pressure and anxiety of the moment wasn’t any greater than Elizabeth normally experiences. Thoughts of the ride and the course are far from her mind. Instead, the focus is keeping Lilith’s warm-up steady. When it’s time to move into the holding area, Lilith is ready, ready.

From the holding area, the riders were able to gain a sense of the arena. The atmosphere, the anticipation, was less electric than the year before. Perhaps, it was the arena being only three-quarters full. Or, the audience more subdued. A less excited atmosphere generally keeps a horse from becoming overexcited. A highly charged setting, like the year before, several horses, including Lilith, were overexcited.

tunnel walk: from the stables to Priefert Arena

warm-up: Priefert Arena, ring two (left)

While she prefers a later start position, Elizabeth drew ninth in the order. Riding later in the order gives a better sense of the course in terms of difficulty and footing. Riding early in the draw, there is little sense of the course. The ride becomes trusting yourself.

With Elizabeth and three other amateurs part of the field of 29 riders, the World Cup Grand Prix began. Per FEI rule, the amateurs would not be listed in the official results unless it is a top ten finish. Richard Spooner (USA) was the crowd favorite with Chatinus, a 10-year-old Hanoverian he acquired over the summer. He had top five finishes in the World Cup qualifiers at Sacramento and Del Mar.

The challenge of the Soberón course revealed itself quickly. The first eight riders had put down rails, at least one. Riding ninth, 1028 Elizabeth Ksenia Ramos/Lilith (USA), would she be the first to ride clear? Elizabeth was riding the course well, her split times good. They cleared the troublesome 1.60 m fence with ease. The three 1.50 m fences down the backstretch, clear. On the second to last fence, a slight brush on the top rail of the 1.50 m fence. Rail down. Time, a 1.5 second lead on the field. With 20 riders yet to come, an unknown rider with a penchant for detail is the leader for the moment.

The ride done, Elizabeth knew she missed her chance. It seemed, though, the event may not go to a jump-off. Rider after rider were pulling rails. Elizabeth’s lead was steadily being chipped away, then her time passed. The first clear ride finally came 12 riders later. Crowd favorite, Richard Spooner, rode clear at 24. Karrie Ruffer (USA), an amateur making her second World Cup start, also made the jump-off. Spooner won the jump-off by nearly three seconds over Alison Robitaille (USA), with Ruffer retiring after a pulled rail. She finished third, and a place in the official results. In the unofficial results, Elizabeth finished 11th, 0.18 seconds short of tenth place.

For some, Las Vegas was their season finale. After the holiday break, many would begin assembling their show schedule for 2018. A few were planning a trip to the Winter Equestrian Festival in Palm Beach, FL to watch the best ride. A pair of riders the girls know rather well have decided to call it a career in riding, but continue in the horse world.

And, a handful, including my girls, are riding at the World Cup tour event in Guadalajara, this week, to begin their 2018 calendar.